'It Was Like a Bomb': Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan on the Northridge Earthquake

David Butow/Corbis; AP Photo/Greg Gibson

The city's 39th leader describes the moment he nearly drove off the Santa Monica Freeway in the minutes following the worst rumbler in U.S. history.

It may not have been the dreaded Big One, but for Angelenos who lived through the events of Jan. 17, 1994, it was plenty big enough. At precisely 4:31 a.m., greater Los Angeles shook for 10 terrifying seconds, sending millions fleeing their beds in search of cover. The epicenter of the 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake was in the San Fernando Valley, but the ground shook as far away as Las Vegas. Buildings pancaked, freeways collapsed and tens of thousands of homes were damaged as fires and blackouts gripped the region. In the end, Northridge claimed at least 57 lives and caused $49 billion in damage, making it the worst earthquake in the country's history. As its 20th anniversary approaches, then-L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan tells The Hollywood Reporter about that terrifying day.

I was at my wife-to-be's house on the day of the earthquake and it literally was like a bomb. It wasn't like a usual earthquake, which stays on for a minute or two. It just was for a really short period of time, but all concentrated so that it knocked me onto the floor. I got up and realized something terrible has happened. So I went to the phone, but the phone wasn't working. I went out to the car to my mayor's phone but that wasn't working either. So I went back in, put on sweat clothes, and got in my car with [my fiancee] Nancy Daly. We went to the Santa Monica Freeway and along the way we stopped at a condo where her mother lived. I dropped her off there, and I remember clearly two women saw me, gray-haired women, and they said, "Go to it, Mayor!" And that really lifted my spirits up.

PHOTOS: Todd McCarthy's 10 Best Films of 2013

I got on the Santa Monica Freeway, driving myself. There were no lights on in the area, so I was as far as I knew the only car on the freeway.  I built up to maybe 80 or 90 miles per hour and all of a sudden I saw two lights coming at me on my side of the freeway. In other words, they were on the wrong side of the freeway coming at me. I made a very slight swerve, went around them, and realized they stopped me from going off the bridge that had fallen at the La Cienega intersection of the freeway. And I turned around, followed this giant truck, and got off on the wrong side of the freeway and went on the first exit, which I think was Robertson. I made a B-line to the Wilshire station of the police department. I went in, met the sergeant at the desk and looked around for anybody else. The sergeant had no idea what was happening, what should be done, nor did anybody seem to know what was happening, so I just figured, this is not where I should be and dashed back out to my car.

I took my car directly to City Hall and four stories below City Hall is the emergency operations center. I went downstairs to that. I went into this room. There were about 40 tiny desks in the room -- one for each member of the department of the city. It's about 5:01 a.m. when I arrived, and Bob Yates, the head of transportation, came right behind me. We put up a big map where he tried to outline several bridges that had collapsed on the freeways, and he mentioned that the Santa Monica Freeway is the busiest we had in Los Angeles and that any detours around the La Cienega bridge would have to include about three intersections in Culver City. He said, "Normally it would take about two years to get the state's permission to incorporate those intersections." I said, "I'll tell you what: You have five minutes to take over those intersections. Here is my home telephone number. If anybody complains, give them that number, and if they call me, I'll ask for forgiveness." I ignored city ordinances and state laws and just got things done. The theory being, if it's ethical and practical, ignore what the law is. Just get it done.

STORY: Complete Guide to TV Premiere Dates 2014

Willie Williams, our chief of police, stayed in his home until about 11 a.m. the morning of the earthquake, because his wife had panicked over it because some piece of furniture almost hit her and killed her. I told [a staffer], "You go out and pick him up and drive him over here as fast as you can." Some members of the media had overheard what was happening and I got them all together and said, "If you like L.A. at all, you will not report on it because we don't need people to lose faith in their leaders." And they never did report it, to their credit.

The next major thing that came to mind is the next morning. I met with [Governor] Pete Wilson at his meeting place in downtown Los Angeles, and we had about 20 or so members of the California Transportation Agency there, and we started to talk about what's going to happen to repair the freeways. And I asked the question: "What did the architects and engineers you had out yesterday, what did they suggest?" And it took them an hour to say they didn't have any architects or engineers out there yesterday, but that they had plans to do it. It took that long to admit that they hadn't done anything on the plans. They hadn't really written anything down. At that point, I got really upset and I held it to myself until I got into a side-room, where I had the head of highways for the U.S. government and the transportation secretary under Pete Wilson, and Wilson himself. And I just swore like I've never sworn in my life. I was so angry. But I said, "OK, let's get private engineers and architects out today right away and then let's find a contract to get it done by Friday." That was three days later, and it was all done.

The basic thing that I always say, when I took over as mayor, all I had gone through -- the Rodney King riots, the first economic recession in the history of the city -- the rest of the country and the media, particularly, was saying that L.A. was about to die as a city. And the wonderful thing about the earthquake is it brought everybody back. It gave the people of L.A. a confidence they had never had before because what it told them is: forget the walls, forget everything, get your business repaired, and just get going. And to their credit, they did. The people of L.A. are the ones who should be all talking about it because they're the ones that made it happen.